Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Worth reading: review of One Throne Magazine, Summer 2014 issue


There’s so much good reading online these days. My reading (and writing) leans toward the speculative fiction genre, and I struggle to keep up with the journals in that field. Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Apex, Strange Horizons. . . The list goes on. Aside from clicking to Brevity when a new issue comes out, I rarely look at “literary” or non-genre journals.

But a little while ago, one of the editors at One ThroneMagazine e-mailed me asking if I would consider reviewing his magazine. Just before Labor Day weekend, I finally read the Summer 2014 issue straight through. I’m glad I did. 

First off: the layout of this magazine is gorgeous. It is a slick, professional-looking online journal, and lavishly illustrated. Each story and poem is accompanied by artwork, and I was surprised at how well the pictures went with the text. I found most of the illustrations intriguing and lovely on their own, but when combined with powerful prose or poetry something truly resonant occurs.

The Summer 2014 issue features three pieces of fiction, one flash-fiction piece, and eight poems. The pieces are diverse in content and style. While many of the poems center on love and relationships, there’s a great range in tone and approach. The first poem, “This City, She Loves Me” by Mary Carroll-Hackett, is a wonderful, sexy, sultry, bluesy piece. “Desert” by Lesley-Anne Evans also takes on love, but in a bleaker, lonely register. “Adagio” by Sarah Feldman also addresses the pain in relationships and love, and “The Web” by Emma Paulet speaks of overt violence in this context (this last poem feel a bit too overt to me, but eh, that’s my personal taste). Switching things up, “Dog Years” by Ryan Favata is a charming, whimsical piece reminiscent of Billy Collins. Other poems take on other topics and themes. I’d like to note that “Dog Years” and another poem, “Many Things Live Backward,” are listed as first-time publications for both writers. Congrats to both, and it’s nice to see a journal taking on the work of new writers, as well as established ones!

The eclecticism seen in the poetry selection carries over to the prose. “Voracious” by Ilana Masad is an eerie little piece that hovers on the border of speculative fiction—slipstream, perhaps? “Abi |Abbey Abbie Alexander” by Matt Jones is an anguished story of grief. “Wonderful” by Jenny Wales Steele is a sly tale of black humor and two very, very naughty children (the accompanying illustration--of angelic-looking children playing in Victorian garb—is perfect).

But the stunner of this issue is the long prose piece by Timothy Ogene, “Notes from a Discarded Memoir.” Although labeled as fiction, this piece indeed reads like memoir--a non-linear, episodic memoir. An unnamed narrator relates his memories of growing up in in the city of O, Nigeria, in a crowded set of buildings known as “the blocks.” This piece is, simply, devastating. It is an unsentimental depiction of urban poverty. The narrator viscerally evokes the smells, the squalor, and the physical discomforts of his childhood.

“Burst pipes were left unfixed. The zinc roofs leaked like baskets. When the walls or floors cracked, they were patched with a mix of cement and sand. No one complained. My parents never complained.

The cardboard ceiling bulged with dirt and dust, including rat excrement collected over time. Septic tanks overflowed into clogged drainages. And when it rained, the drainages surged and became rivulets that stopped at our doorsteps.”

There is a horrific description of the pit latrines, and the recounting of a child’s almost unbelievable fate in such a latrine.

Yet despite such specific, searing details, “Notes from a Discarded Memoir” is more than a voyeuristic look at African poverty. The fears and loneliness expressed by the narrator evoke the universal anxieties of childhood, when all of us (even the most coddled) were ultimately powerless and at the mercy of adults. The children in this narrative grapple with dread mysteries in a way that I think must be universal to children. When his parents are asleep, silent, in the next room, the narrator wonders in terror if they’re still alive. An elderly neighbor (who to the reader’s eyes appears utterly harmless) is a figure of utter dread to the narrator’s sister. The children suffer petty injustice when they are beaten by a prefect for being late to school. A man with a macabre sense of humor tells the narrator a story that gives him nightmares.

There is little of lightness in this story. By the end, it is clear that books and education will be the narrator’s escape from this place. As an adult, he has no desire to return to the dilapidated “blocks” of his childhood. Yet he knows that he is forever marked by them.*

In summary, One Throne Magazine offers up a range of fine prose and poetry. Some pieces spoke more to me than others, but the ones that did hit me, hit hard. The editor who e-mailed me suggested that this journal would be of interest to someone who likes beautiful writing, and indeed, all the pieces—even the ones that didn't resonate much with me—were beautifully written. It is also worth noting the diversity of writers featured. The Summer 2014 issue included writers from Nigeria, Israel, South Africa, Canada, and the United States; the issue also included a mix of new and established writers.

At the start of this review, I mentioned that I don’t generally read “literary” or non-genre magazines. While One Throne Magazine has the appearance of a “literary” magazine, it apparently does not turn up its nose at speculative fiction. The “About” page states that the journal aims to span genres, “running the gamut from elegant prose and poetry, to plot-driven stories, to speculative fiction.” It will be interesting to see where this journal goes in the future. If this issue, and particularly if  the selection of Timothy Ogene’s work is an indicator, I think this journal will go to very interesting places indeed.


*After reading “Notes from a Discarded Memoir,” I immediately googled Timothy Ogene, as I do with all writers I admire. He has written thoughtfully on the dilemma faced by African writers when trying to write honestly of their countries—and in particular, of the concern that a story about African poverty feeds into stereotypes and into the perception of a “single story” about the continent. His essay on this, “The African Writer’s Dilemma,” and an interview with him at The Missing Slate are both well worth reading.

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